08/18/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dear Hillary: 'Don't Do Stupid Stuff' Would've Kept Us Out of Iraq and Vietnam. Pretty Smart, No?

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may (or may not) have hugged it out, but there is no mistaking that the former secretary of state is looking to create some distance between herself and the president she served. In her interview with The Atlantic, when Jeffrey Goldberg spoke of finding "harmony between muscular intervention" -- "We must do something" -- vs. let's just not do something stupid," clearly referring to the thinking of the current and most recent former presidents, Clinton characterized both approaches as "extremes." She instead advocated a middle path that, in essence, splits the difference between W. and O.

Going further, she criticized what has become a shorthand for the president's first principle of foreign policy, arguing that "great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." What this great nation does not need, I would submit, is a president whose foreign policy is only going to be half as destructive as that of George W. Bush.

But first, let's clarify what "don't do stupid stuff" actually means. It means don't send our armed forces somewhere unless there would be serious consequences to our security if we didn't, and, additionally, unless there are no other alternatives. And, within those parameters, avoid a major commitment of ground forces unless no other military option would suffice. It's much more than a throwaway line. If you want a fuller description of President Obama's foreign policy that still fits in a sound bite, it's this: "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

That's what the president said in a West Point commencement address barely two months ago. He also said that he would not send troops into battle:

... simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak. ... America must always lead on the world stage ... but U.S. military action cannot be the only--or even primary--component of our leadership in every instance.

That is an organizing principle worthy of a great nation, a nation that seeks peace and stability for the world, and security for its own people. That is the kind of nation we ought to be.

And whether it's "don't do stupid stuff" or "just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail," please think about how much stronger our country's security and overall health would have been in the past seven decades if our presidents had conducted foreign policy with the Obama Doctrine at the front of their minds. As Obama himself noted, "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences."

In 1953, an American- and British-backed coup overthrew the elected government in Iran led by Mohammed Mossadeq. Why? Because we thought he would move his country into the Soviet orbit. The result: Our puppet, the Shah, took power and suppressed the secular opposition. A quarter century later, the shah was overthrown by the theocratic, Islamic government that turned Iran into a bitter enemy of the U.S. The Soviets are gone, but the ayatollahs are still there. Count that as one for the Obama Doctrine.

That's not the only instance of covert U.S. interference in another country during the Cold War, many of them on behalf of, ahem, less than fully democratic regimes. Even more destructive than Iran or any of these was our disastrous war in Vietnam on behalf of a population that didn't want us there, and that rejected the government with whom we were allied. Imagine what our country would be like today if it hadn't been torn apart by Vietnam. And then, as David Axelrod reminded us, there was the stupidity that was invading Iraq.

Just to clarify: "Don't do stupid stuff" means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision. -- @davidaxelrod

In surveying the current landscape, Hillary Clinton expressed concern about "the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States." Certainly, they are dangerous and should be a primary focus of our foreign policy. Then she added that jihadist groups ...

... are driven to expand .... How do we try to contain that? I'm thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.

The idea that jihadi groups--brutal, aggressive, and, yes, as ISIL's mass murders have shown, evil as they are--represent a threat that requires us to muster a response similar to our containment of a nuclear-armed world power is, to use the word of the day, stupid. And remember what was said above about Iran and Vietnam. We overreacted during the Cold War as well. To her credit, Clinton recognizes those "mistakes," but what she fails to realize is that the "overarching framework" and the need for an "organizing principle" is exactly what led us into those mistakes.

During the Cold War, our policy of containment had a core strategic element: the domino theory, which led us into a war that we did not need to fight in Southeast Asia. The strategic model itself bears a significant share of the blame. It is very tempting to create a model of how the world works and to try and shoehorn events and trends into that model. But it's a bad idea.

In criticizing the Obama Doctrine, Clinton bemoaned its lack of an overarching vision, some kind of model. That is, however, its strength, in particular given our position as the Number 1 status quo country on the planet. We are, without question, the world's preeminent military power. We devote more funds to military forces than do the next eight countries combined.

When I say we are, or at least ought to be, a status quo power, I mean that our main goal should be to make sure no other power threatens our security or the stability of the world. A successful foreign policy has to assess each threat according to the principles of the Obama Doctrine. Having an "overarching framework" (again, see Iran and Vietnam) can cause a president to inflate a situation beyond the threat it actually poses. The invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush is a separate case because, well, that country posed no threat to us at all.

During the Cold War, if we'd been more confident in the ultimate superiority of our political and economic system--despite its serious problems--compared to that of Soviet communism, we could have avoided those mistakes by recognizing that, in the long run, we were going to win. Just like Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama understands that when you are the smarter, more talented competitor in the ring, you can let the other guy swing wildly until he tires himself out, the old rope-a-dope strategy. The Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, unable to keep up with us in terms of the freedom or economic opportunities democratic capitalism offered. Our interventions on behalf of anti-communist thugs, whether they "succeeded" as in Iran, or abjectly failed as in Vietnam, had no effect on that collapse.

Hillary Clinton calls for us to embrace a more robust organizing principle for our foreign policy than "don't do stupid stuff." Her reference to the Cold War is telling, and at least suggests that she sees expansionist jihadist groups as a fundamental threat reminiscent to that posed by the USSR. Sounds to me like a new "Global War on Terror," the kind of thing that could potentially lead us into another unnecessary and destructive conflict. Talk about stupid.